Making Meaning

I got the question today. You know the one, if you’re an English teacher. The one about whether the author truly intended something or other I pulled from the story.

Let me back up. As a teacher of tenth grade American Literature and Composition, it falls to me to teach the research paper. I have taught it so many years now that I have it down to a science. Last year, I decided to walk students through each step by writing a paper myself. I was intrigued by a short story I had not read until last year. It’s called “A New England Nun,” and it was written by Regionalist writer Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. It isn’t a particularly interesting story, but I found it intriguing because the protagonist, Louisa Ellis, so clearly exhibits typical signs and symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I wrote a research paper proving the following thesis: Louisa Ellis, a character in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun,” exhibits signs and symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

Because the story is obscure, I am able to answer students who tell me they can’t find anything on Huck Finn. (I actually got that one this week!) We read the story so they can see how I was able to draw conclusions about the character and also how I was able to take notes on the story for note cards.

One of my students asked me whether Freeman intended to create a character with OCD. I can’t answer that. I’m not sure Freeman was aware of the disorder. She might have been. Even if she wasn’t, people have been exhibiting OCD behaviors throughout history, and she could possibly have modeled Louisa on someone she knew who was “like that.” So my answer to the student was that I don’t know. I can’t prove it. But I asked my students this — just because an author didn’t intend to put something in a story, does that mean it isn’t there?

For example, J.R.R. Tolkien is famously quoted as saying he hated allegory. Yet, I find it very easy to read his writing as allegory. Does that necessarily make me wrong?

I explained to my students that we all bring things to a story that a writer can’t control, and we make meaning of their writing based on those things we bring. If we make a connection or notice a symbol or develop a theory based on that writing because of what we brought to it, is it necessarily wrong because the writer didn’t think of it (or we don’t know whether the writer thought of it)?

For the first time when I’ve been asked “the question,” I could see wheels turning. The students considered what I said, and I think they found it valid. It was a far cry from the way I used to approach teaching literature to students who didn’t draw the same conclusions as I did — they just didn’t have much experience as a reader. How could they be expected to “get it”?

I recommend a book I read last year called How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. There is a way to get students to understand that digging into a text can make it more interesting and “gratifying.” The book is an engaging read for English teachers who are interested in learning how to get kids to do this.

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8 thoughts on “Making Meaning

  1. This isn't the way I remember it, but it's the way it's printed on the PAL website: Hemingway's Iceberg Theory "If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water." – Death In the Afternoon, Scribner's, 1932, Chap. 16, 192. It's an interesting exercise to read closely with students, waiting for them and helping them to pull out as many associations and connections from words and phrases as they can. I call it reading consciously with my kids.

  2. I believe that while an author may "intend" a meaning with a character, action, or piece of dialogue doesn't mean we (the reader) have to accept that intention as the only meaning. That's one of the joys of reading is discovering or maybe uncovering meaning the auhor may not of intended, and then being able (or attempting) to prove our meaning is just as valid. I find that books I've read about how to write screenplays helps me look at literature stories in a different way, especially when it comes to dialogue. You're lucky you get to teach American literature to tenth graders. In Charleston, American literature is eleventh grade.

  3. Orson Scott Card who wrote "Ender's Game" has a homepage where, among other things, we posts answers to students questions. My favorite one is:

    QUESTION: Several readers have asked this question: What is the theme of Ender's Game?

    — Submitted by many people

    OSC REPLIES: – August 31, 1999

    I can't help you at all, because, in my opinion, a good novel won't have "a theme." That's what essays have. Novels have a STORY. If your teacher is asking you to find themes in a novel, to me that makes about as much sense as looking for gears in a fish. So how can I possibly help you find "THE theme"? You can quote me. <a rel="nofollow" href="http://www.hatrack.com/research/questions/q0011.shtml&quot; rel="nofollow"&gt <a href="http://;http://www.hatrack.com/research/questions/q0011.shtml” target=”_blank”>;http://www.hatrack.com/research/questions/q0011.shtml

  4. Hi Dana, I'm trying to e-mail you, but the e-mail is bouncing back. Can you drop me an e-mail in case I have the wrong address? My e-mail address is listed in the right-hand column of my blog. Thanks! –Waterfall

  5. Superdestroyer, Orson Scott Card is famous for that, but it's my contention that all stories have themes. A theme is, at a basic level, the reason why the author wrote the story — why he wanted to bother. He knows why he wanted to bother; he must have had an English teacher that took all the fun out of reading and writing for him. Don, most of our public schools also have American Lit. in 11th grade, which can pose a problem for transfer students. However, I did teach at one public school that had American Lit. in 10th grade for Honors students. Why do you think it's better, just out of curiosity?

  6. Dana, Personally, I like the stories, writers, and poets of American literature better than the other grades I've taught. Also, I like to integrate American history, which is also in the 11th grade, with the literature.

  7. When I write fiction, I know where I want my story to go, and I know how I want my readers to feel. Everything else is in choosing 'what is right.' A lot of 'what is right' is consciously chosen, but a lot isn't — it's just right. I use one of my own stories in class, but the kids don't know until after we've examined it. When it comes to theme, I have to tell them that I had no theme in mind when I wrote it. I knew that it was a good story, but didn't care a bit about any message — the 'truth' of the story was in the story, not a separate theme. I ask the kids to come up with themes for it, and they do — good ones. I can tell when a theme does not fit my story even though I cannot state a definitive theme myself. (This comment reads very vague and airy-fairy to me. I hope it makes sense to anyone else.)

  8. Right now my students (8th grade) are writing a review of a novel they have chosen individually. The whole idea of making meaning together with the author, rather than beating the meaning out of it… (like the Billy Collins poem about teaching poetry) is difficult for them to handle sometimes.

    "yeah, okay, but what did he mean?"

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